Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Why the Church Says What It does About "Movies"

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The power of movie directors never ceases to amaze me. The sway of influence they yield today is surpassed not by many others in this world. A Paul Weitz can set half of the young population on the road to promiscuity and sexual disease with a film like "American Pie", and a Mel Gibson can set the population on the verge of national repentance with "The Passion". Films have become too powerful these days; they have too much persuasive potential. A single director can now shift the opinions and ideas of an entire nation in under two hours of screen-time. And, regrettably, the majority of the time this power is used to malignant ends.

It is not the intention to say here what most Coptic youth have already heard a dozen times (and rightly so) from parents and Sunday School teachers about the cinema. Doubtless one or two things that will be said here you have heard before; but a bland and generalized prohibition on movies we will try to avoid. It happens to be a matter of fact today that most of us enjoy watching movies; they have penetrated so thoroughly into our lives that it is almost impossible to avoid them. And so, we should all make it our duty to fairly consider why the church says what it does about movie-watching.

Probably the primary factor that makes movies so successful is their potent ability to cause confusion in the viewer's mind of what is real and what is false. Whatever you may think, the primary reason why the visual and audio effects of a movie make such an indelible impression on our imagination is that they lull our minds into forgetting that what we are experiencing is not actually real. When you are watching a film, your mind really has very little inkling that what you are seeing is merely a large-scale act.

The proof of this is very easily found. Think back to the first time you saw "Jurassic Park", if you have. Were you at least slightly awed by the first sight of the T-rex? Or the fierceness of the raptors? If so, then your mind didn't realize that what you were watching was really just a bit of computer-generated pixels cleverly put together to resemble a large animal. Or the last time you saw a horror film—were you at all scared? You may allege that you "knew" all along that it was just a big act—but then why did you feel fear? If you knew that a movie was all just "pretending" with the same level of certainty that you know a child's Halloween mask is just for "pretend", then your body and emotions would remain absolutely calm. But when you do watch a scary movie, the heart-rate picks up a little and the jaw tenses. The fact is that your mind doesn't really know that "it's all an act". It is successfully fooled into thinking that what it sees on the screen is real.

So what is the upshot of all this? Some of us will admit that this is true and even that we don't mind it. We like being fooled—it helps us enjoy our weekends. We choose to forget the difference between reality and fantasy if only for a few hours for the sake of pleasure or escape.

And neither is this totally unreasonable: the thrill of an adventure movie or the inspiration of a religious movie are often worth the watching.

The major problem starts when this confusion of reality and fantasy begins to distort the viewer's outlook on the world around him. A teenager who lives off of a staple of movies like "American Pie" will start to think that perverted sexuality is basically "funny" and that the whole goal of life is pretty much summed up in sex. A person who enjoys films filled with violence will inevitably come to think blood and fist-fights more common and more normal in the real world than they really are. His mind will fail to realize that the level of hatred and violence in the movies are merely whimsical fabrications of the director—just as our minds failed to realize that the horror movie we watched was merely a fabrication.

What is the solution, then? Run? Can we reasonably denounce and avoid every single movie that Hollywood makes? I am tempted to say yes. However, something even more spiritual is needed, something more wise. We must use discernment. That is, we must first directly and honestly identify every idea we are vunerable to—sex, profanity, reckless violence, doubts in faith, and so on. If we know beforehand a film to have such elements, we ought to avoid it completely. And this will take strength.

Then, when we watch a film that initially seems okay, we must at every minute be gauging how much of these elements are in the film and how much of our thoughts and emotions they are shifting. If we detect the effect on us to be too great, we must turn off the tape, we must leave the theater. If the effect is but a little, we must stay on the watch. And at the close of every film, it is wise to take inventory of all our values and opinions and compare them to what they were beforehand. It is truly our duty before God. The advantage of this method is not only self-review, but it makes one immune to the truth/falsity conflation that a movie aims at from the outset. You are aware at every minute that what you are seeing are just actors and a stage.

The church is ever trying to remind us, just as it does in all its teachings on society, to remain "sober and vigilant: because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (II Peter 5); and that "The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light" (Matthew 6).

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